A large man stepped into the lobby of the Holiday Inn, a crowd immediately surrounding him. Standing barely above John Wayne’s waist, being only 10 years old, I fought to obtain one of the autograph cards Duke was handing out as a diversion, while trying to weave his way through the throng of adoring humanity.
This was the most exciting event I had ever experienced in my hometown. Wayne’s movie “The Hellfighters” was being filmed below the red buttes at Bessemer Bend, just outside of town.
Wayne is seen as an iconic patriot, a prototypical gung-ho soldier, an American ideal, the embodiment of Texas, and the Old West cowboy come to life. There is, however, another classic movie star who better epitomizes American patriotism than Wayne – Jimmy Stewart.
The difference between Wayne and Stewart is the difference between image and reality. John Wayne had a great film persona; but his real life bore little resemblance to the Hollywood legend.
Duke’s real name was Marion Morrison, not very cowboy or masculine. He was not from Texas, Wyoming or the Wild West, but was born in Iowa and raised in Los Angeles. John Wayne did not grow up on a ranch, like Montanan Gary Cooper, but was a pharmacist’s son.
Duke portrayed rugged, self-made pioneers, but in real life attended the University of Southern California and enjoyed body-surfing.
Wayne often played tough-as-nails military men, but did everything possible to avoid service during World War II.
His mentor, director John Ford, enlisted early in the war even though he was nearly 40. Ford urged the actor to join him in uniform. Duke refused, saying he needed to make “just one more film.” John Wayne never served.
Wayne’s movie wife was frequently played by all-American Maureen O’Hara; but his three real-life wives were not U.S. citizens at the time of their marriages. When his third marriage was on the rocks, Wayne spent the last years of his life with his secretary, who was 34 years younger – not exactly a “family values” example.
Wayne’s height was likely accentuated by lifts in his boots. Even his signature walk does not seem original, but invented with the help of Ford early in Wayne’s career.
James Maitland Stewart was his real name, a descendent of Revolutionary and Civil War veterans. Jimmy was not impressive physically, but wiry, like a real cowboy.
When World War II began, Stewart was the first Hollywood star to enlist. He did not want to serve stateside, safe from harm, but volunteered for combat, flying more than 20 bombing missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.
Between 1941 and 1945, Jimmy Stewart did not make a Hollywood film because of his service, costing him millions of dollars. Wayne made 18 films during the war, including “Back to Bataan,” “The Fighting Seabees” and “Flying Tigers.” While Duke played soldiers in the movies, Stewart was risking his life in battle.
Returning from the war, Hollywood studios were eager to cast Stewart in military roles. Jimmy refused, not wanting to capitalize on his service. Jimmy Stewart remained in the Air Force Reserves for decades, eventually reaching the rank of general, a man of faith who did his duty without complaint or fanfare.
Jimmy only had one wife, remaining married to his sweetheart Gloria until her death. A staunch conservative politically, he was best friends with committed liberal Henry Fonda. Stewart accepted, liked and respected people, even those with whom he did not agree.
I have John Wayne’s autograph, but it is “The Man from Laramie” who carried a “Winchester ‘73,” demonstrating “How the West Was Won,” and showing us that “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart, who better embodies American patriotism.
Whether liberals or conservatives, people of faith or atheists, politicians and common citizens, all of us would do well to follow Stewart’s example, focusing upon our actions instead of the image we project.
Posturing is easy, but true patriotism is shown by putting our lives on the line, doing those things that help our nation and our fellow Americans.
With Memorial Day behind us, and Flag Day and the Fourth of July to come, I say, rest in peace, Patriot Jimmy; and thanks from a grateful nation, to all who have selflessly served.
The Rev. Daniel Molyneux is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Fairfield. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.